The Colorado River

Geographers can tell you that the one thing that most rivers and their
adjacent flood plains in the world have in common is that they have rich
histories associated with human settlement and development. This especially
true in arid regions which are very dependent upon water. Two excellent
examples are the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates rivers which show use the
relationship between rivers and concentrations of people. However, the Colorado
River is not such a good example along most segments of its course. There is no
continuous transportation system that parallels the rivers course, and
settlements are clustered. The rugged terrain and entrenched river channels are
the major reasons for sparse human settlement. We ask ourselves, did the
Colorado River help or hinder settlement in the Western United States?
As settlers began to move westward, the Southwest was considered to be a
place to avoid. Few considered it a place to traverse, to spread Christianity,
and a possible source of furs or mineral wealth. Finding a reliable or
accessible water source, and timber for building was difficult to find. There
was a lack of land that could be irrigated easily.
By the turn of the century, most present day cities and towns were
already established. Trails, roads, and railroads linked several areas with
neighboring regions. Although the Colorado River drainage system was still not
integrated. In the mid 1900\'s many dams had been built to harness and use the
water. A new phase of development occurred at the end of the second World War.
There was a large emphasis on recreation, tourism, and environmental
The terrain of the Colorado River is very unique. It consists of Wet
Upper Slopes, Irregular Transition Plains and Hills, Deep Canyonlands, and the
Dry Lower Plains.
Wet Upper Slopes: Consist of numerous streams that feed into the
Colorado River from stream cut canyons, small flat floored valleys often
occupied by alpine lakes and adjacent steep walled mountain peaks. These areas
are heavily forested and contain swiftly flowing streams, rapids, and waterfalls.
These areas have little commercial value except as watershed, wildlife habitat,
forest land, and destinations for hikers, fishermen, and mountaineers.
Irregular Transition Plains and Hills: These areas are favorable for
traditional economic development. It consists of river valleys with adequate
flat land to support farms and ranches. Due to the rolling hills, low plateaus,
and mountain slopes, livestock grazing is common. The largest cities of the
whole drainage system are found here.
Deep Canyonlands: Definitely the most spectacular and least developed
area along the Colorado River. These deep gorges are primarily covered by
horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks, of which sand stone is the most abundant.
The Grand Canyon does not only display spectacular beauty, but numerous other
features such as mesas, buttes, spires, balancing rocks, natural arches and
bridges, sand dunes, massive sandstone walls, and pottholed cliffs.
Dry Lower Plains: These consist of the arid desert areas. These areas
encounter hot summers and mild winters. Early settlement was limited because
most of the land next to the river was not well suited for irrigation
agriculture. The area is characterized by limited flat land, poor soils, poor
drainage, and too hot of conditions for most traditional crops.
The Colorado River was first navigated by John Wesley Powell,
in his 1869 exploration through the Marble and Grand Canyons. The Colorado
River begins high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The water begins from
melting snow and rain, and is then supplemented by the Gunnison, Green, San
Juan, Little Colorado, Virgin, and Gila Rivers. Before any dams were built, the
Colorado River carried 380,000 million tons of silt to the Sea of Cortez. Along
it\'s path, it carves out the Marble, Grand, Black, Boulder, and Topok Canyons.
The Grand Canyon being the most popular, which is visited by numerous tourists
every year, plays a large role in western tourism. The Grand Canyon is in fact
one of the World\'s Seven Wonders. The Colorado Basin covers 240,000 square
miles of drainage area. At certain points along the river, it turns into a
raging, muddy, rapid covered mass of water. Unlike other rivers, the Colorado
River doesn\'t meet the ocean in a grand way, but rather in a small trickle.
Almost all of the water that passes down the river is spoken for. It passes
through seven Western States, travels 1,700 miles, and descends more than 14,000
feet before emptying into the sea, with more silt and salinity than any river in
North America. A river not used for commerce, or any degree of navigation other
than recreational, and virtually ignored until